Reviewby Nick Creamer,
My Hero Academia (Episodes 1-13 Streaming)
Izuku Midoriya has always dreamed of being a superhero, and in his world, that's not a bad career choice. These days, superhuman “Quirks” allow people to act out the heroic fantasies they've always dreamed of, so Midoriya could truly achieve his dreams. Unfortunately, Midoriya soon finds out that he's one of those rare souls born without a Quirk at all. But Midoriya isn't deterred by this harsh truth and continues to fill notebooks with his hopes for a superheroic existence. Until one day, he runs into the Symbol of Peace himself, All Might, who has some unexpected words for Midoriya.
Debuting just two years ago, My Hero Academia has swiftly become one of the headline manga of Shounen Jump, a rip-roaring adventure elevated by strong art, charming characters, and consistent mastery of battle story fundamentals. Quickly snapped up for adaptation, the anime was announced as a BONES show directed by Kenji Nagasaki. Nagasaki's prior claim to fame was directing Gundam Build Fighters, a generally acclaimed series suffused with exactly the kind of youthful energy something like My Hero Academia needed. Between these strong credentials and the strength of the source material, it seemed like the stars were aligning for a knockout shounen anime.
Unfortunately, the show we actually received wasn't quite the one some might have hoped for. There are limitations plaguing My Hero Academia, issues that prevent it from being its own best possible self. But before I get to that, I should start with some of the many things the show does right.
My Hero Academia takes a very obvious premise and runs with it. In the spirit of Naruto's “what if we lived in a ninja world” and One Piece's “what if we lived in a pirate world,” My Hero Academia posits the superhero world - a world where the discovery of “Quirks” has led to the vast majority of people being born with some kind of compelling superpower. Some people can make their skin as hard as rock, others can change size or levitate objects, and still others can set stuff on fire with a moody glance. It's a wild superhero world out there.
As My Hero Academia begins, we're introduced to Izuku Midoriya, a boy whose passion for superheroes is somewhat tempered by the cruel fact that he was born without a Quirk. But this is My Hero Academia, not My Underwhelming Academia, so a chance meeting with top superhero All Might ends up giving Midoriya a chance to truly become the hero he'd dreamed of being. And thus Midoriya's adventure begins, as he trains for exams, battles classmates, and generally lives the prospective superhero life.
As a polished articulation of a classic shounen adventure template, My Hero Academia shines. Midoriya is a very likable character, and he's joined by a rich cast of teachers and classmates who all add their own personality to the group. There's a sense of positivity and joy in My Hero Academia's cast that can't be understated; these kids are ambitious and occasionally headstrong, but outside of Midoriya's childhood bully Bakugo, nearly all of them are ultimately very good kids. They like each other, support each other, and make plans based on their collective strengths. It's hard not to root for this cast of characters.
Of course, the fact that everyone here has super cool powers also helps. A big part of My Hero Academia's appeal is just learning the various abilities of Midoriya's classmates, and then seeing the variety of ways that they apply them to battle situations. Midoriya's own power is particularly well-chosen - he has the ability to summon incredible strength, but can barely control it, and thus generally ends up destroying his own body every time he uses it. This double-edged power means Midoriya constantly has to rely on his real advantage - his years of studying superheroes, which have lent him the ability to make clever tactical decisions based on the tools at hand. Midoriya's imbalanced talents make for consistently engaging fight scenes all through the second half.
Beyond its grasp of action show fundamentals, My Hero Academia's general philosophy is also extremely refreshing. It's great to see a show fully embrace the gleeful, positive side of superheroes, full of characters who are constantly articulating through their actions what heroism really means. My Hero Academia understands that heroism is in many ways performative, and that its true goal is to make someone an inspiration to others. A message like that is eternally relevant.
All of those strengths make My Hero Academia an inherently compelling ride. Unfortunately, all of those strengths are also somewhat dulled by the show's greatest flaw - its glacial pacing. My Hero Academia is paced like it's frightened of running out of source material right out of the gate, and basically every element of the story suffers for it. Many episodes felt like they were just adapting a single chapter of the manga, a quantity of narrative material that really shouldn't take more than half an episode. By consequence, it takes nearly forever for anything to happen - the show is full of repeated, unnecessary flashbacks, long pans that kill dramatic tension, and sequences where single-panel gags are stretched out over far too many seconds of screen time.
In addition to generally hurting the energy of the production, the show's slow pacing also means My Hero Academia doesn't really go anywhere. Characters are debuted and battles are fought, but by the end of the season, it feels like we're still in the story's introduction. The poor pacing hurts My Hero Academia's tension, humor, and even its overall narrative structure. Along with the pacing, My Hero Academia also rarely takes advantage of its medium to pull off great animation highlights. The production generally plays it extremely safe, sticking close to the original panels and almost never decompressing with added motion or fight sequences. My Hero Academia often feels too literally like a manga in motion - plenty of single climactic punches, but little of the dynamic back-and-forth that can make anime fight scenes so rewarding.
That said, the rest of the production is a clear demonstration of shounen adaptation done right. The anime's visual style nicely matches the professional gloss of the manga, and there are plenty of dynamic or dramatic angles to enjoy. Nagasaki is clearly accustomed to drawing energy out of this kind of earnest, passionate material - he's hampered by the constraints of the pacing, but still manages to make the big climactic moments shine.
My Hero Academia's score is also excellent. Yuuki Hayashi also worked with Nagasaki on Gundam Build Fighters, and his eclectic mix of rousing songs gives My Hero Academia a strong sense of energy even when scenes are starting to drag. Hayasaki has a strong grasp of both clear melody and the opportunities afforded by diverse instrumentation - he also provided the excellent music for Kiznaiver, and I look forward to hearing more of his work in the future.
Overall, My Hero Academia is an easy recommendation that nonetheless makes me pine for the version of this show that could have been. The problems are clear and solutions obvious - speed up the pacing and let some talented animators occasionally cut loose with flourishes on the original material. I'm frustrated that this anime couldn't quite live up to its own potential, but still happy with the show we received. I can only hope the second season addresses the issues holding this one back.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Offers an excellent articulation of an obvious shounen premise, charming characters, great music and art design
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